Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Fun With MMOs: Rift Revisited

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
--Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Back in late 2010, WoW released Cataclysm. There was a lot of initial enthusiasm for the expac and the number of subs to WoW swelled to their highest point at that time of 12 million. However, by March 2011 the number had fallen back to 11.4 million and some of the playerbase had become restless. There were the usual gripes of "nothing to do" on reaching max level as well as the "instances are too hard" refrain, but there were also complaints from some traditionalists who missed the talent trees and a lot of quirks that Blizzard had eliminated in their desire to make WoW fresh and exciting.

Into that atmosphere came the software company Trion Worlds with their new MMO Rift.
This is one of five copies around the house, courtesy of Gen Con 2011's
goodie bag. Yes, even the youngest mini-Red got a goodie bag, which
inclued a mini-deck for Magic: the Gathering,  a.k.a. a free sample of crack.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Fun with MMOs: The Reviews' Guiding Principles

If I'm going to actually review some new(ish) MMOs*, I'm going to provide some parameters for both the effort itself and what I'm evaluating. What I don't want to do is just play for a few minutes and give the game an evaluation, because that's not so much an evaluation as taking a look at a trailer for the game.

That said, what I will review will be different than what other people review. Some reviewers focus on gameplay, sound, graphics, story, endgame, and polish, but I don't want to be constrained to that. I want to focus on the sense of immersion and whether there are things in the game that break it.

Here's a short example of breaking immersion from a non-video game aspect: the story in the film National Treasure. Yes, I'm aware National Treasure is a fun action movie --and it plays out like an RPG campaign, to be honest-- but I'm also a history buff.** When I first watched that movie I was glad I was at home, because I could then get up and go into the kitchen and silently rage at all of the misrepresentations of history before rejoining my wife. Fun movie, yes, but boy did it break my sense of immersion.

You got that right, Sean. Fun fact: Sean Bean's character
doesn't die in National Treasure, which is a pretty rare thing.
From quickmeme.

How do I intend to do all of this? Well, here's my process:

  • Create a toon for each faction represented in the MMO.
  • If there's only one faction, I'll still create two toons, one male and one female.
  • During the creation process, I'll take a look at all of the options to see where the limiting factors are. I'm thinking in terms of agency here, as I want people to not be restricted to playing a very specific type of player. I'm not using this as an excuse to push any sort of prudishness or moral/political viewpoint, I just want there to be options for people to play the way they want to play.
  • To properly evaluate gameplay and story, I'll play through the intro zone and the first low level zone to get a good feel for the game. Preferably, if the game has one or more capital cities, I want to at least reach that city before I end my evaluation, but I want to avoid the issue of Age of Conan where the intro zone --Tortage-- was fantastic but the low level zone (right after arriving at the capital city) was just so-so. My initial review of AoC was that it was a really good game, until it became a huge grind once you got past Tortage.
  • How other players interact, how global chat operates, and how other players present themselves will factor into my evaluation of immersion. I'm not going to get on a RP server if I can help it, but I will definitely stick to PvE as much as I can. I'm no longer a world PvPer, and I don't want that to factor into my evaluation.
  • I'll also keep an eye on how NPC's behave, look, and interact with the players. Clues as to what sort of game the developers want to present can be found in those details, as what developers present in game may be different than when they talk about the game.
Curse you, Steam, for making it too easy to find all of these games!
I realize that not everybody is going to find these reviews valuable, particularly given that some of these MMOs have been around for several years. Chasing the new hotness is pretty much always in vogue, and I'm definitely not doing that nor examining the most popular aspects of MMOs. My viewpoint is decidedly non-raid and non-world PvP, which puts me at odds with a significant portion of the MMO community; people who want to see those aspects in an MMO aren't going to get much of anything out of my reviews.

But that's fine with me. I'm not trying to keep up with the latest MMO out there, so when I get to it, I get to it. And I'm not likely to be the only person who comes into an MMO late, so taking a gander at an MMO that has had time to mature isn't a bad thing at all. And really, people who read this blog are well aware of my lack of time/desire to go raiding, so there's no real surprises.

So let's do this. First up, an MMO that I examined six years ago and found a lot to like, but I didn't want to leave the confines of WoW to explore something new.

*For my purposes if not for anybody else's. As the youngest mini-Red pointed out to me, her sister is quite capable of making the decision of whether or not to play on her own. "True," I said, "but if someone asks me for my opinion, I want to give an informed one, not one driven by the internet." She was fine with that response.

**I minored in History in college. No, it didn't have anything to do with my major (Physics), but I enjoyed the subject enough that I took a lot of my electives in History (and Philosophy) just because.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

How Do I Get Roped into These Things?

The oldest mini-Red came to me not too long ago and mentioned that one of her friends had suggested that they play an MMO together.*

"Oh?" I'm not so uptight that I want to control what she's playing, but I was curious why she asked.

"Yeah, I haven't heard the game before. I think it's TERA."

My brain let out a little scream.

"Have you heard of it?"

"Um, yeah, I have. It's well known for how the female toons run."

You know, like this:

And yes, I did show her this video, which looks like something Piers Anthony would have dreamed up.**


"Yeah, outside of that and that the female toon garb tends to be really skimpy, I don't know much else about it."

"Well...." she began, mulling things over. "It is F2P. Maybe I should at least check it out to see what I think."

I scratched my beard as a sinking feeling settled into my stomach. "I guess I should check the game out too as well. Due diligence and all that."

Which is how I arrived at this point in time: I've spent the better part of the past several days on Steam, downloading 3 newer MMOs (and one old one that I tried back in beta, RIFT), and steeling myself for what I might find. I'm not prudish by any means, but I do know that games that are Asian or have a heavy Asian influence (Aion, for example) have a completely different viewpoint on how female toons should look, dress, and act. The subservient "sex toy" vibe that some female toons exude in these games gets on my nerves, particularly when the toon should be a Type A badass.

Compared to my normal (and previous) standbys of LOTRO, SWTOR, STO, and WoW, these games are likely to have gear that should never see a battlefield.

Yeah, like this.
(This meme can be found all over the net.)
And don't think for a second that because I enjoy the Hyborian Age of the Conan stories that I also think that Conan or his female contemporaries in Age of Conan get off the hook. But the one thing that AoC does do right is that it is internally consistent: both male and female toons show a ton of skin, and their toon reactions are anything but subservient in manner and attitude. I know that I'm likely to find in these new MMOs a distinct difference in attitude and presentation between male and female toons, and that is going to annoy me.

At least there's some internal consistency in Cimmeria.
(From Demotivational posters, found all over the net.)

So why go ahead and examine them when I "know" I won't like them?

Because "knowing" is not the same as really understanding. If I'm going to explain my likes and dislikes of a game, I'd better have firsthand knowledge of that game. And if I'm going to give my kids advice on a game, I'd better not be making judgement calls solely on secondhand data. Reviewers will have a bias --just as I will-- but I'll be able to understand that bias and explain myself far better after having examined the games first.

So I'll be off trying some of these games that I've read about only on Syl's and Rohan's blogs, as well as other places.

*Yes, it's a male friend. No, I'm not quite so worried about them hitting it off in game or something, as they already hang out. If they were a year closer in age, I'd think they were an item, but that two year age difference is a bit of a brake on any potential relationship. There's a big difference between, say, 27 and 29 versus 17 and 19. Still, given my extensive observations of teenage boys --fatherhood, you know-- he's quite mature.

**His Xanth series started out somewhat tame, but then they eventually veered into weirdness and overall creepiness with a heavy dose of "panties!" in descriptions.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Big Tent

I've occasionally harped on how representation matters, but I was reminded of that when I was cruising through YouTube last week.

YouTube surfing is like free association: you find something interesting, watch that, and you're pointed in the direction of other potentially interesting videos. Either that, or you end up being distracted by whatever is on the sidebar.*

But one of my "recommendations" was a blast from the past:

I remember vividly the first time I watched this cinematic trailer for SWTOR, because of the reaction of the mini-Reds.

Sure, all three loved it, but when we reached the 2:37 mark, the reactions among the girls changed from "wow!" and "cool!" to stunned amazement.

"I want to be her!"

"I want to play her!"

Representation is not a matter of trying to sideline people who are in the majority, but a way of telling the sidelined "Hey, you're welcome here, have a seat at the table."

It's akin to what happened when an old university friend and his family stopped by for the weekend a few years ago. Their two kids, a girl and boy, had recently discovered Star Wars,** so when they stopped by I was ready. I motioned over the younger kid and pulled out one of the mini-Reds' toy lightsabers. "You know what this is?" I asked.

He nodded wordlessly.

"Go ahead and push the button."

The lightsaber sprang to life, light and sound and everything.

His eyes were as big as saucers.

A second lightsaber found its way into the hands of his older sister, who knew exactly what to do. And for the rest of the afternoon, there were lightsaber battles and young padawans in awesome Jedi poses.

The last I checked, both kids were confirmed Star Wars fans, "For life!" one of them told me last year.

There is no reason why geekdom and the gaming industry can't say "Hey, there's a seat at the table for you, no matter who you are." There's absolutely no reason to feel threatened by making the tent bigger, because we all win when we open our arms wide in welcome.

*Probably both.

**Their dad helped a wee bit.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

When a Gamble Doesn't Pay Off

"You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around, you're only second best."
--Lancey Howard, The Cincinnati Kid

If it isn't obvious, I have a low opinion of gold farmers.

Gold farming, particularly the large operations, are a source of account hacking and MMO economy manipulation. They are by no means the sole source of either, but they are far from an innocent bunch. By using real money to purchase in in-game source of currency, the gold farmers encourage the "pay to win" mentality in what is at times a very obnoxious form of hard sell. There was a time in late-Wrath through all of Cataclysm where you couldn't walk through an Alliance or Horde city and not run into a bunch of bots in formation spelling out the name of a gold farmer website.* And even today, at least a few times a week I get spam mail in SWTOR from gold/credit farmers, which I find quite hilarious given that it is so easy to spend a day and accumulate enough credits to buy most items in the auction house.

I've occasionally wondered why gold farmers do what they do. Sure, the short answer is "money", but there's plenty of other ways to make a living than dealing in the MMO version of Bitcoin. Well, Cracked magazine's website has a post up about a gold farmer leaving the gold farming business behind.**

(I should also note that Massively OP also picked up on the article and posted a referring article on their website.)

The article itself is worth reading, if for no other reason than that it confirms my opinion that Blizzard's attempts to combat gold farmers using the WoW tokens was a shot across the bow of the WoW gold farming industry. It also deals with the nature of MMO/WoW/video game addiction, and that addiction is very much a real thing.

Oh, and the real gold mine (pardon the pun) is pairing this article with one from a year ago, about how a small time gold farming operation looks from the inside.

My single biggest takeaway is that small time/independent gold farming operations remind me of small time professional gamblers. I don't mean the people who are on television at Texas Hold 'em poker tournaments, but the people who gamble at casinos, racetracks, and online for a living. Sure, someone may strike it rich at any time, but those times are very rare. You may even have a better shot at making it as a pro athlete than as a small time gambler or gold farmer, but that dream of making it big is a siren song.

*No, I'm not going to provide a pic of it. Why give the site(s) free advertising?

**I remember when Cracked was Mad Magazine's wackier cousin. When did Cracked actually start putting up some serious stuff in addition to the humor? I know that they were already serious when Robin Williams passed away and they had a couple of really good articles about the intersection of comedy and depression.

Monday, June 19, 2017

An Oldie but Goodie

Courtesy of the LOTRO forums comes this little graphic from Yosoff:

If novels followed MMO logic. Just sayin'...

Yes, I am amused.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Raising a Pint in Salute

While longevity in a blog is one thing, longevity in a podcast is quite another.

The time it takes to publish a blog post is pretty minimal compared to the effort it takes to pull together a podcast. From a technical aspect alone, there's the design, the equipment/software, and the editing to create a polished finished product. While you can run both on a minimal budget, the hours spent working on a blog pale to those spent on a podcast.*

Therefore, I wanted to take some time to salute two podcasts that reached significant milestones: The Twisted Nether Blogcast and the Battle Bards podcast.


You may be cool, but not Blog Azeroth cool.
Twisted Nether is a live blogcast that has just reached its 9th anniversary. Fimlys, Hydra, and Zabine run the WoW focused show --which is the face of Blog Azeroth-- and are frequently joined by bloggers across the WoW-verse. (Full disclosure: I was a guest on Episode 166, recorded live on April 28, 2012. Back then it was just Fimlys and Hydra running the show, and I'm very glad I got to know them through TN.) TN encourages listeners to join the live blogcast and comment in the live comment section, and while the recording time is frequently at odd hours for Eastern North America, I heartily recommend listening in on a live blogcast.

Through TN I've met several fellow bloggers who have since become friends, including Ancient from Tome of the Ancient. If you're curious about WoW comings and goings, I heartily recommend Twisted Nether for an entertaining look at WoW from people who love it so much that they run a live show in the late hours Sunday nights (EST).

However, I did learn one thing about a live blogcast: don't make a quip that can be construed as being awkward. In my case, it was the final question round, and I made a quip about not having heard these questions before. If you've heard Twisted Nether, you've heard the questions, so it wasn't so much as amusing as awkward, and I should have known better than to try to say that. Still, Fim and Hydra were fantastic hosts, and even though I no longer play WoW, if I'd the chance to go back on just to talk with them, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Something about that lute reminds me of
the LOTRO Minstrel class. Just sayin'.

Battle Bards is an MMO podcast created by three people who truly love MMO music, and will be dropping their 100th episode shortly (if it hasn't dropped already. EtA: Here it is!!!).

While the music might be a minor aspect to MMOs in general, the thrill of that first loading screen with the stirring soundtrack blaring through the speakers is a fond memory to even the most hardened MMO gamer. To that end, the team of Syp, Stef, and Syl --the Battle Bards-- scour the MMO world for the interesting and unusual as well as comparing themes among various MMOs.

I've been a long time listener to Battle Bards, in no small part because a) I'm a music lover and b) my long time blogger friend Syl is a host. While I agree or disagree with the Bards' selections, I do find something interesting each episode. However, looking back at the podcasts, I believe that Battle Bards really hit their stride on their fourth episode, the interview with LOTRO composer Chance Thomas. Chance was an engaging guest, and the Bards performed a great job in exploring the music of LOTRO and the process Chance works through when composing a piece. At that point, the podcast became more than just a discussion about favorite pieces and began hitting on the nuts and bolts of the music itself.

The Battle Bards demonstrate in spades that all you need is a love of the music to explore the amazing world of MMO soundtracks.

*By comparison, the livestreaming of a game takes less effort. Once the software and equipment are configured, all you have to do is bring your creative self and play away. Once a livestream graduates into a vlog, however, editing begins to assert itself.